The U.S. Makes Progress On Parental Leave — But Not Nearly Enough

By Catherine Gigante-Brown

It may not garner as much media attention as conventionally contentious wedge issues — see immigration, abortion, gay marriage — but among 2016 Democratic presidential candidates, paid parental leave has been increasingly deployed as a political talking point. As The New York Times recently noted, “For probably the first time ever, all of the current Democratic candidates openly support a national paid leave program.” And it’s not just Democrats; in September, Marco Rubio announced a paid family leave plan (he remains, though, the only Republican candidate to have done so).

In her presidential campaign sneak-preview speech, Hillary Clinton said that no one should have “to choose between keeping a paycheck and caring for a new baby or a sick relative.” Previously, she referred to the issue as “unfinished business.” For his part, candidate Bernie Sanders has called for legislation to guarantee 12 weeks of paid family leave.

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Obama discusses parental leave during his January, 2015 State of the Union address

President Obama also voiced his support for the issue in his January 2015 State of the Union address, when he announced an executive action to provide federal workers with six weeks of paid parental leave. This was followed in July by the Labor Department revealing it would dedicate $1.25 million in grants to research how to develop and implement such programs.

It makes sense that this issue has moved to the forefront of political debate. A full 87% of U.S. workers don’t receive any paid family leave. Only four U.S. States — California, New Jersey, Oregon, and Rhode Island — boast it, in addition to several cities that offer it to city workers, including Seattle and Boston.

More high-profile companies are also starting to independently offer leave. In August, Netflix announced it would offer a full year of paid parental leave to its employees. As Netflix’s chief talent officer, Tawni Cranz, put it at the time: “Netflix’s continued success hinges on us competing for and keeping the most talented individuals in their field. Experience shows people perform better at work when they’re not worrying about home.”

In March, Accenture doubled its maternity leave benefits by offering up to 16 weeks of paid leave for full- and part-time employees. Microsoft bumped up its parental leave benefits in August, offering new moms 20 weeks of paid leave and new dads and non-birth parents 12 weeks — eight more weeks for both parents than was previously offered. In November, Spotify entered the fray when it began offering six months of flexible paid leave, while Mark Zuckerberg landed in the news cycle for his decision to take two months of paternal leave.

And it’s not just the private sector upping its family-leave game; on Christmas Eve, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced six weeks of full paid parental leave for the city’s 20,000 non-unionized public employees starting in 2016.

Yet while these efforts signal significant progress, they still remain few and far between — which is, of course, the reason they’re considered news in the first place.

As policies change, it’s also difficult to shake the societal expectations that initially drove them. As The New York Times recently reported, plenty of parents who are offered leave decline to take it because they fear repercussions on their work life. In August, Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo, enforced this sacrificial mentality when, in her announcement that she was expecting twins, she said, “I plan to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago, taking limited time away and working throughout.” Policies may change, but cultural attitudes are more difficult to shift.

As the discourse surrounding parental leave intensifies, it’s worth noting that the U.S. is the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee its workers paid maternity leave — and asking why, exactly, that is.

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Mapping paid maternity leave. (Chart via thinkprogress.org.)

The American Way

There are a lot of theories as to why the U.S. hasn’t invested in supporting growing families as other developed nations have. In a NPR interview, Columbia University’s Jane Waldfogel, who tracks parental leave policies around the world, ventured that the U.S. is hesitant to add the benefit because they fear it will negatively impact profit margins. But Waldfogel told NPR that this is a popular misconception. “Most of these are employee-funded programs that states manage and pay out to the employees,” she explained. “So there’s no financial burden on employers at all.”

Laxmi Chaudhry of One Stop HR, an international human resources solutions firm, works with clients in more than 28 countries worldwide. She links the U.S.’s lack of maternal support with our overinflated work ethic. “I think the American ‘can-do’ attitude works against new mothers,” Chaudhry ventures. “Americans believe nothing is impossible and ‘I can make it happen,’ even when it comes to mothers returning to the workforce. It’s the embodiment of American independence.”

It’s almost as though women and children are being sacrificed to fuel the American Dream. “I think much of it comes down to the idea of self esteem, societal expectations, and competition,” admits Jackie A. Castro, a Los Angeles-based licensed Marriage Family Therapist (MFT). “Our country and society do not hold women in high regard.”

Castro notes that the women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s worked hard to crush myths about femininity. “As a result,” she says, “women rebelled against traditional values and moved in the opposite direction. There was indignance about being ‘just a mother’ and women were looked down upon if they didn’t have a career. Women were given more opportunity in the workplace, but the caveat was that we had to try harder, sacrifice more. And that sacrifice was the family.”

Maureen Linker, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who specializes in women’s and gender studies, points out that having a family is still considered a personal and “private” responsibility rather than a public good. “Women who have a child are on their own in the social, political, and economic sense,” she says. “It’s considered to be an ‘event’ only in the private sphere and as such does not require public support. If a woman wanted to start a business, for instance, she would have more public mechanisms available to further that fledgling life than she would for a newborn.”

With the U.S. lagging behind other developed countries, it stands to reason that parental leave will remain a hot topic in the lead-up to the election. Dr. Waldfogel told NPR that there is even currently talk of piggybacking government-mandated parental leave as part of Social Security benefits.

Meanwhile, the debate continues on what the perfect length of maternal leave is. “From a children’s health and development perspective, I honestly think it would be best for children if mothers or fathers had the option to be out longer or to be able to come back on a part-time basis,” Dr. Waldfogel told NPR.

For now, six weeks to three months are common lengths being considered by the U.S. government. This, of course, pales in comparison to the rest of the world — but it’s a promising, and necessary, starting point.

Read more from The Establishment’s three-part series on the U.S.’s family policies:
Parental Leave Policies: America Vs. The World
The New Workplace Reality Demands New Policies For Families

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Lead image: Wikimedia Commons

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